Clause 6 - Application for precision bred confirmation

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 5th July 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:00 pm, 5th July 2022

I beg to move amendment 11, in clause 6, page 5, line 31, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Clause 7 stand part.

Clause 8 stand part.

Amendment 31, in clause 9, page 6 line 33, at end insert—

“(iii) safeguarding the health and welfare of those animals that are no longer deemed to be precision bred;”.

This amendment would require regulations conferring power on the Secretary of State to revoke a precision bred confirmation relating to an organism to include provision to safeguard the health and welfare of any animals which would as a consequence of such a revocation no longer be deemed precision bred.

Amendment 12, in clause 9, page 7, line 9, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”.

Clause 9 stand part.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair again, Ms McVey, as we continue this interesting discussion. You were part of the evidence sessions.

We come to a series of clauses about precision bred confirmation, and we have a number of amendments that largely relate to how Parliament scrutinises the secondary legislation. As we argued this morning, we think that far too much is being pushed off into secondary legislation. Even within that, too much of the secondary legislation is subject to the negative procedure, so it will go through without any scrutiny. I will not repeat the broad points about why we think that is not the way to do it, as they are familiar to most people.

Clause 6 concerns the applications for precision bred confirmation. The Government will be given powers to make secondary legislation that prescribes the form and content of a marketing notice and the information that is to accompany one. It is really important that the advisory committee, the welfare body and the Secretary of State have all the information they need to come to an informed decision on both the release and the marketing of precision bred organisms. Frankly, I am not comfortable —and I do not think many others will be—giving the Government a blank cheque to determine what information must be provided. I understand that it needs further consideration and thought, but it seems to us to be too significant an issue not to merit proper scrutiny in this House. Amendment 11 simply tweaks it to make the clause subject to the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure.

Clause 9 allows for the revocation of a precision bred confirmation. Again, that is a very important matter, and I have a series of questions, which I touched on in the discussion before lunch, about how these decisions are arrived at. What triggers them? What is the information? What is the process? As one begins to think it through, one can see that there is really not a lot of detail in the Bill as it stands. It is not clear to me, and I hope the Minister can go through in detail some examples of how all this might work.

If the Government are no longer satisfied that a precision bred organism is indeed precision bred—perhaps it has become apparent through some complaint or some new science that it does utilise genetic modification technologies, which require a higher level of regulation, or perhaps some adverse impacts have come to light—we appreciate that they would need to be able to revoke an authorisation, and we support that, but I cannot quite see in the real world how that situation arises. It would be really helpful for me and, I am sure, others if the Minister could walk us through an actual example. In what circumstances would that happen? Does the Minister anticipate that there will be challenges, and that the Government might lose and therefore have to step back? In that case, it is right to have a procedure for dealing with this. It would be useful to know quite what the thinking was behind it. We need proper scrutiny of some of these powers, and amendment 12 would make the clause subject to the affirmative procedure to ensure proper scrutiny takes place.

When a precision bred confirmation is revoked, even though we cannot entirely envisage how it will work, it is important that the Secretary of State has a process to safeguard the health and welfare of those animals—we are talking about animals in this case—that are no longer deemed to be precision bred. We took advice from Compassion in World Farming on this, which gave evidence in the evidence sessions. It says that where that is the case, it will be because the organism has either been mischaracterised or the genome is no longer stable, which, in their view, may create health and welfare risks. Again, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on whether that is that situation is envisaged. That raises the question of what to do with the creatures that have been created through this process and how to bring the breeding of the line back under the appropriate regulations.

What I am saying about this amendment goes right back to the beginning, when we were nervous about embarking on the animal route without knowing more detail. As one begins to look at the detail in the Bill for dealing with some of these issues, without knowing the wider thinking, wider background and wider regulatory framework, it is quite hard to comment on the potential unintended consequences and how they might be dealt with. The reason that this matters to all of us is that animal welfare matters. I hardly need remind the Minister of her Government’s 2019 manifesto commitment, which I helpfully have before me:

“High standards of animal welfare are one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. We have a long tradition of protecting animals in this country, often many years before others follow. Under a Conservative Government, that will continue”

—well, quite. We fully endorse that. In the spirit of that commitment, I hope that the Government will welcome amendment 31, which would require the regulations that make provision for the procedure to be followed if the Secretary of State proposes to revoke a precision bred confirmation to include provisions to safeguard the health and welfare of any animals that are no longer deemed to be precision bred.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. Amendment 11 would provide for further parliamentary scrutiny on the marketing notice. The amendment is not necessary, as this power cannot be used to deliver a substantive change in policy; it is merely to prescribe details that are technical and administrative in nature, such as the form of the marketing notice or the information that must accompany that notice. I worry that what the hon. Member for Cambridge is seeking is because these regulations are as yet not in place. We have gone over the fact that we will look to work with experts and stakeholders and so on in order to ensure that we have the right guidelines so that we can move forward.

The criteria for defining a precision bred organism is set out in the Bill. We will continue to seek expert, independent advice on the technical details before any regulations are brought before Parliament. It is appropriate for the technical detail which demonstrates how the given organism meets these criteria to be specified in regulations and for such regulations to follow the negative procedure, as there may be an appropriate time for them to be added to.

In amendment 31, the hon. Gentleman proposes placing a duty on the Secretary of State when revoking a precision bred animal confirmation to safeguard the health and welfare of animals. All vertebrate animals are already protected by extensive animal health and welfare legislation, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence either to cause any captive animal unnecessary suffering or to fail to provide for the welfare needs of the animal. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 include specific requirements to protect animals when bred or kept, prohibiting breeding procedures that

“cause, or are likely to cause, suffering or injury”.

The regulations further state that:

“Animals may only be kept for farming purposes if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of their genotype or phenotype, that they can be kept without any detrimental effect on their health or welfare.”

The protections provided by these regulations would apply to an animal where a precision bred confirmation relating to that animal had been revoked. Those welfare requirements cover all animals. With those protections already in place, we see no need for anything further and I urge the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.

On amendment 12, I stand by what I have said before on the use of parliamentary time. The key proposition that a precision bred confirmation should be capable of being revoked is set out in the Bill.

Clause 9 sets out a pathway by which a precision bred confirmation may be revoked. It is a criminal offence to market genetically modified organisms without prior consent, and we believe that companies will continue to be incredibly careful to avoid mistakes. However, to provide a belt-and-braces measure, in the unlikely event that a GMO goes through the procedures under this Bill and is marketed as a precision bred organism, the clause establishes a transparent process for dealing with such an eventuality. That is important for consumer confidence and transparency.

Clause 9(4) addresses conferring additional functions on the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. The ability to seek scientific advice on any relevant new information that comes to light will be an important component part of this process. The clause states that we will need the help of outside experts to ensure that we move forward appropriately.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am afraid that I am still not entirely convinced, for a number of reasons, going back to some of the points I made just before we broke for lunch. There seems to be a closed, narrow group of people making these decisions. What ACRE—this group of eminent people—is being asked to do is to make a judgment on whether something that has been submitted to them is a PBO.

Following our discussions on the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022 a few months ago, ACRE released guidance on how the process would be approached. The guidance is quite technical, to put it mildly, and it is thoughtful and nuanced, and has quite a lot of caveats. Obviously, the guidance is not before us today, but it is relevant, because it is what ACRE will consider—there are no additional terms of reference being introduced in these clauses. There will not be a simple, clear-cut process and that probably explains why the Government have introduced this method for revoking confirmations, because more science and more evidence can come to light.

My worry is that it feels like a discussion between a very small group of people. If we are trying to address the question of public confidence, which is key, it does not seem to give the degree of reassurance that people seek. If one were being kind and generous to the Government, as obviously I would be, one way to provide that reassurance might be to bring forward secondary legislation so that it is discussed, rather than just being passed without discussion, as we know many statutory instruments are all the time. We think it is worth looking more closely at the procedure and making the secondary legislation subject to the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure.

Although the Minister did respond to my invitation to give us an example, I am still not really very clear quite how it would happen. What happens to the animals—we are talking about animals here rather than plants—in those circumstances? I appreciate that there are existing protections, but the question is whether any additional protections are needed given the new set of procedures available, and how that should be handled. That seems to be worthy of further interrogation.

I say no more than that. I see no need to divide the Committee on the amendments. I am happy to withdraw them, but the conversation has been useful and I hope that the Government will think about some of the things as they bring forward their proposals. The more one looks at the measure, the more potential issues arise. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.